While doing study on the temples of Jageshwar for my Kumaon series, I realized, I knew nothing about the ancient Indian temple architecture styles. This ignorance is despite that ancient places of worship always attract me, not only for spirituality but also for their aesthetic appeal. These marvels, in my opinion, are a testimony to our ancestors’ excellence in meticulous planning, accurate geometric designing, knowledge of elegant architectural proportions and their outstanding craftsmanship. Their command over architectural sciences is evident by the fact that these temples (scattered all over the country) remained intact withstanding years (sometimes centuries) of neglect, wear and tear, and sometimes even vandalism, to allow us a glimpse of our rich heritage.
The purpose of my study was not to understand the intricacies of structural engineering (which I guess is beyond my capabilities as well)), but to become informed enough to comprehend and appreciate different types of temple architectures, their commonalities and peculiarities. I am writing this article to increase awareness by sharing what I learnt in the process.
Construction of a temple was always considered a sacred activity. The timely completion of these Abodes, along with attention to the minutest details, required strict hierarchy of commands. On top of the hierarchy was the person who dreamt of a temple for his isht. He was Yajmana (यजमान)/Karta (कर्ता) or the Patron. Most of the time, Yajmana was a king, a queen or a rich businessman and used to choose the Mukhya Sthapatyapati (मुख्य स्थापत्यपति) or the Chief Architect. Mukhya Sthapatyapati (मुख्य स्थापत्यपति) was expected to be the master of Shilpa Shastra, Vaastu Shastra, Dharma Shastra, Agnipurana and all mathematical calculations. He was the person responsible for converting Karta’s dream into an architectural draft.
He was empowered to select his chief engineer, the Sutra Grahini(सूत्र ग्रहिणी), who was responsible for converting the architectural draft into geometrical design and dimensions. In order to avoid confrontations, ego clashes and to work in perfect synchronization, Sutra Grahini was usually the son of Mukhya Sthapatyapati. They were assisted in their task by Murtikar मूर्तिकार (the sculptor), Sangatarash संगतराश (the mason) and the painter. These were the senior technical specialists who then commanded many others to get the job done.
Those higher in command, besides being knowledgeable, were also expected to be the man of characters and were believed to lead a pious life especially during the construction period. It is not uncommon to hear lores where Karta’s vanity led to obstructions in construction, till he realized his mistake.
Two such lores that immediately come to my mind are of Ranakpur temple in Pali district of Rajasthan and that of the temple of Orchha, Madhya Pradesh.
The Jain temple of Ranakpur was constructed by Seth Dharna Shah who was a minister in Maharana Kumbha’s court. Maharana Kumbha was a great patron of art, architecture and music. When the minister approached him and sought his permission to build a temple of Adinath Bhagwan, Maharana wholeheartedly agreed and even donated land for the temple and the town.
Uniqueness of this temple is 1444 columns, exquisitely carved with none of the two being alike. According to the lore, Maharana Kumbha decided to construct Kirti Stambh in the temple. When it was about to complete, Maharana started to feel that it was going to be the best among all. However, soon it started to collapse again and again for no apparent reason. The recurring incident made Maharana to introspect. He realized that his ego could be the reason behind the strange occurrings. He paid penance and instructed to leave it incomplete as a reminder that egos and prides have no place in God’s Abode.
Similarly, in Orchha, Raja Madhukar Shah built grand Chaturbhuj Temple for Lord Rama’s idol that was to be brought from Ayodhya. On its completion, king’s boastful pride for the imposing temple was conspicuous.
He sent some people to Ayodhya to bring the idol. When they reached Orchha, it was already dark and the idol was temporarily kept in the modest Puja ghar of the Palace. The plan was to consecrate the statue in Chaturbhuj Temple (मूर्ति स्थापना and प्राण प्रतिष्ठा) next day, at an auspicious time. However, the next day, people realized, it was impossible to budge the statue from its position. God had chosen His Abode. The immobility of the idol shattered the king’s ego and brought him to the righteous path. Today the palace is worshiped as Raja Ram kaa mandir and Chaturbhuj Temple is a ruin. God sometimes follows strange ways to correct and bless its devotees.
मेरा मस्तक अपनी चरण धूलि तल में झुका दे!
प्रभु! मेरे समस्त अहंकारको आँखों के पानी में डूबा दे!
अपने झूठे मह्त्वकी रक्षा करते में केवल अपनी लघुता दिखाता हूँ|
अपने को ही घेर मैं, घूमता घूमता प्रतिपल मरता हूँ|
प्रभु! मेरे समस्त अहंकार को आँखों के पानी में डूबो दे|
(Rabindra Nath Tagore, Geetanjali)
Coming back to the sequence of temple construction, once the hierarchy of command was finalized, it was turn to choose a sacred place for the construction. The important criterion for selection was that the piece of land needs to be free from any vaastu dosh. It preferably should be higher than its surroundings. This is one of the reasons why it is common to see a temple shrine on hill or a hillock. Proximity to a water body was also preferred as it helped devotees to cleanse themselves before entering the temple. Before starting the construction, all tools and implements were worshiped. It was important that all articles used for construction were new and unused.
Before commencing further, let me put the various topics’ headings here, for the ease of flow.
1. Foundation of temple
2. Horizontal plan of temple
3. Vertical plan of Temple
4. Evolution of Temple Architecture
5. Nagara style of temple architecture
a. Rekha Deuls
b. temple classification according to Pagas or rathas
c. Pidha Deuls
d. khakhra or batala Deuls
6. Maru Gurjar Temple Architecture
7. Dravida Temple Architecture
8. Vesara Temple Architecture.
A square or a rectangular pit was dug in the centre of the selected plot for the foundation. The depth of this pit was one third of the height and its length and breadth were sufficiently broader than the diameter of the proposed temple. The pit was eventually filled with sand and large pieces of stone and then pressed down by elephants to provide strong foundations.
A square or a rectangular slab of stone engraved with Ashtadala Padma Chakra (eight-petaled lotus flower with equal geometric proportion) was placed over the foundation. The petals of this flower indicated the directions and were aligned to North, North-East, East, South-East, South, South-West, West and North-West. An imaginary perpendicular line passes through the centre of this flower that determined the axis or meru of the temple. The main idol inside the girbha-griha, or the sanctum-sanctorum, and the temple dhwaja was aligned to this axis.
Now, allow me to discuss the temple plan, first the horizontal view and then the vertical view.
In horizontal plan, the temple architects took great care in utilizing the rich effects of light and shade to bring intense spiritual experience. The hall at the entrance known as Ardhya Mandap is designed to expose it to sun rays for at least six hours. This hall is followed by another hall, the Maha-Mandap( also called Jagmohan as in Orissan temples) that has moderate light with fewer openings. The final room is the Girbhgrih, the womb housing the deity of the temple and it usually has only one opening with light falling only on the idol. Mahamandap is connected with the Girbhgrih (sanctum)through a vestibule called Antaralya. The circumambulation passage around girbhgrih is known as Pradakshina. However, not all temples have pradakshina; a temple without an ambulatory passage is known as Nirandhara-prasada. Some of the large temples have subsidiary shrines on the four corners of the complex. They are known as Panchayatna or five-shrine temple complex.
The temples in horizontal plan represents God in sleeping position with girbhgriha as the mastaka and the gopuram (the gateways of South Indian temple architecture) forming the feet.
In vertical view, the ancient temples are conceived as human figure. The temple structure is divided into three broad sections, Bada, Gandi and Mastaka. The various sub-sections of the temples are named after human body parts. It may have something to do with the belief that God lies in us and our body is God’s Abode.
a) Bada, the lowest part – The lowest section of a temple is known as Bada. It is the vertical wall section of the temples that encompasses Girbhgraha; it is considered as the portion below waistline in human body. Bada is further sub-divided into pada/pabhaga/pishta (foot) or the platform, Tala-Jangha (lower limbs), Bandhana (knee), Upper-Jangha (the thighs) and Varanda (waistline).
Based on number of vertical sub-divisions of Bada portion,temples are further classified as Trianga, Panchanga and Saptanga Bada types . Trianga bada temples are the oldest among the three. The knee portion (Bandhana) is missing in Trianga temples and so there is no separate Tala and Upper Jangha. Panchang bada have five sub sections- as in the above picture- where jangha is divided into two further divisions, separated by a Bandhan. Most of the Orissan temples belong to this category. On the other hand, a Saptanga temple represents highest evolution of medieval Indian temple architecture styles and has seven segmented Bada portion.Here the Jangha portion is divided into three sections, seperated by two bandhans. The temples of Khajuraho belong to this category.
b).Gandi, the middle portion – Bada is upped by Gandi, the torso in human body.It is shaped either as a curvilinear tower, called as Rekha deul or is pyramidal shaped, called as Pidha Deul.
Gandi usually has receding tiers (potala); each tier is separated from other by a prominently recessed wall called kanti. These kantis have mundis, the miniature shrines, over them at regular interval. In richly decorated temples the mundis are also present in the Bada portion of the temple. According to the shapes, these mundis are further classified as Khakhara, Pidha and Vajra mundi types.
c).Mastaka, the uppermost part:The top of a temple is known as Mastaka or the head. The head segment (mastaka) of the temple is further sub-divided into eight parts, Beki (the neck), Ghantai or Sri (the bell shaped member over Beki), Amla Beki, Amla (as its shape resembles an oblate amla), Khapuri or the skull (the bell shaped member over amla), kalasa (the sacred pot), Ayudha (Sacred weapon or the emblem like Trishula, Chakra) and Dhawaja (the flag), that is tied to the Ayudha.
The mastaka portion was constructed with the best variety of stone available. Ayudhs, being delicate and placed on the top, were generally made of ashtdhatu (an alloy of eight metals), though it is not uncommon to find Ayudhs made of stones also.
4.Evolution of Temple Architecture
A close look, in chronological order, at the evolution of sacred structures will reveal that The first structures of worship emerged in the form of caves around 2nd century B.C. It started with Buddhist and Jain monks carving their meditation cells (vihara) and meeting places (chaityas) on rocky mountain faces. These cave complexes were usually present at secluded places to provide isolation and quiet surroundings for meditation. There are no evidences of Hindu cave complexes of the early era. It is believed, at that time, yajna and vedic rituals were more popular among the Hindu devotees. There may have been temporary wooden, mud or brick structures, as symbols of piety, which got destroyed with time. However, there are no evidences to suggest that these structures were anything like the classical Hindu temples that followed.
The early experiment of some actual construction with stone started with Buddhist Stupas.
In the beginning, Stupas were simply the earthen mound containing the relics of an important person regardless of his religion. However, they soon become the icons of Buddhism. They were sometimes built over the relics of famous Buddhist monks and sometimes over the sacred spots related to Buddha’s life. Around 50 B.C someone desired to preserve Sanchi’s small stupa for generations to come. It was enlarged to twice its size and was rebuilt with stones. It was the first experiment with stone and the architect imitated familiar wooden patterns on stone. Still, Stupas were mainly for remembrances and not for meditation or worshipping.
Coming back to the cave complexes, the kings and the emperors following different faiths also encouraged and participated in the construction of these complexes. Probably Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism were not looked upon as separate religion. They might have been simply considered as different paths to attain nirvana or moksha, the ultimate goal of every religion.
As an example, the Buddhist cave complex of Ajanta grew into an extensive monastery under the reign of Hindu Emperor Harishena of Vakataka Empire. The enhancement work on the existing much smaller monastery started in 465 A.D, unfortunately by 500 A.D it came to a standstill. The Emperor Harishena died and his son failed to protect the empire from the attacks of adjacent Asmaka rulers who had no interest in further carrying on with the enhancements. The collapse of Vakataka Empire led hundreds of cave-craftsman, jobless. Some of these craftsman migrated to Bombay region that had Kalachuri dynasty rapidly gaining fame and power. The caves of Elephanta were chiseled from 500 A.D onwards under the Kalachuri Kings, who were ardent followers of Lord Shiva. Thence came into existence the earliest stone monument of Hindus.
There was still one remarkable distinction between Hindu caves and the earlier Jain or Buddhist cave complexes. Jain and Buddhist caves were mainly residential complexes for its practicing monks, but the caves of Elephanta (and others to follow) were for worship only and none of them was intended to be residential.
In 7th century, AD 670 to AD 720 to be precise, a significant transition from caves to cave temples started in South India under the reign of Pallava dynasty. The rock-cut pagodas of Mamallapuram belong to this period. Today the unknown Indian sculptors of these pagodas, surprise everyone by the lace like delicate treatment they have give to the gigantic rocks and converted these expressionless masses into a celebration of construction.
By 8th century the basic design of present free standing stone temples was stable. From 9th or 10th century onwards there was a spurt in temple building activity and a race started among several kartas for the construction of grand temples with tallest towers. It was a period of resurgent Hinduism.
As the construction of free standing stone temples gained momentum, the four main styles of temple architectures Nagara, Dravida, Vesara and Maru-Gurjara emerged.
5.Nagara Style Temple Architecture
Most of the temples in North India followed Nagara temple architecture. These temples are further sub-divided as Rekha-deul, Pidha Deul and Baitala or Khakhra Deul.
a).Rekha Deuls, the most prominent among Nagara style, are characterized by two distinct features in planning and elevation. In horizontal cross-section, the arrangement is quadrangle. In elevation they resembles a tower gradually inclining inwards forming a convex curve, the projections of the horizontal plan are carried upward to the top of the Shikhara, with its tower finally forming a curvilinear or a bee-hive shaped tower. The architectural design of Rekha Deuls has a strong emphasis on vertical lines in elevation and hence the name.
b).The graduated projections in the cross-section of these temples are known as Rathas or Pagas. Based on the number of projections in horizontal plan these temples were further classified as:
Ekratha Deul: A cuboid temple with no projections.
Triratha Deul: A temple with only one projection
Panchratha Deul: A temple with three projections
Sapta Ratha Deul : A temple with five projection
Navrath Deul: A temple with seven projections.
The increase in pagas or projections was a result of continuous improvement of centuries. Ekratha temples are the most ancient and have a primitive design while Navratha Deuls are very rare and are example of most evolved temple architecture. Most of the temples fall under the category of Panchratha Deuls or the Saptharatha deuls.
The central projection which is most pronounced is known as Raha and the projections on extreme end are known as Kanika Pagas. The third projection between Kanika and Raha is known as Anuraha (present in Panchratha and above). The extra projection in Sapta-ratha and above is known as Pariratha and the projection only present in Navratha is Pariraha. Besides these major projections, there are numerous less noticeable offsets and recesses as well.
c).Pidha Deul: The gandi portion of these temples has several steps (pidhas) or the horizontal stages. These temples are typically present with Rekha Deuls. Initially Rekha deuls existed in isolation, subsequently as temples started to be used for congregation and other socio-cultural activities thatched rectangular structures were erected to protect the devotees from sun and rain. Progressively, need was felt for permanent portion of the temple that was in continuous need for Bhajans and Kirtans. Soon these structures, that retained their appearance, became an integral part of the temple complex. These associated Pidha deuls are known as the Jagmohan. With time Jagmohans were joined by Natamandap (divine theatre) and BhogMandap (the sacred ladder). All these categories of temple portion were built in the form of Pidha Deuls.
In-fact rekha deuls are conceived as male temple and pidha deul as its female accompaniment. Of course, it also means that with passage of time rekha deuls were considered incomplete without pidha deuls.
d).Khakhra or Baitala Deul: Third category of Nagara style temples is known as Baitala or Khakhra temples.These have a unique mastaka portion that appears like a boat (Baitala) or a pumpkin/gourd (aka known as khakhra in Odiya). The mastaka of these temples have three Amlakasila with Khapuri and Kalasa or one Amalakasila at centre and two udyata singha on either side These decorative temples of Nagara style were mainly constructed to worship Goddesses as Devi, Chandi and Chamundi. .
6.Maru-Gurajara Temple architecture
This style flourished in Western India, in the regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat. I find it similar to Nagara architectural style with a difference that the central temple was surrounded by many small replicas of itself with cascading shikhars, creating spectacular effect of graded peaks resembling Mt Kailasa or Mountain Meru as described in sacred scriptures. Somnath temple in Gujarat and temple of Ranakpur in Rajasthan belongs to this category.
7.Dravida Temple architecture
Dravidian temple architecture has its origin during the reign of Pallavs in Kanchipuram. This style was further refined by Cholas, Chalukyas of Badami and Pandyas of Madurai. While Nagara temples have curvilinear towers, the towers of Dravida style temples gave impression of truncated pyramids. These towers have elaborate ornamentation with enormous sculpted images.
Till AD 1250, the practice of the architects was to devote their finest craftsmanship to the most sacred part of the temple, the shrine and the tower. There happened a drastic change in this approach with Pandya dynasty establishing their supremacy in South India after defeating the Chola Rulers. These rulers emphasized decorating the outlying portion of the temple scheme as well.
There were several reasons for this change in mindset.
It is believed that at many South Indian sites of religious antiquity the earlier buildings were not of great artistic taste. However, they held great sanctity because of deep and lasting veneration of enshrined idols. So, when the new and powerful dynasty like the Pandyas wanted to add something of their taste they ended making high walls and entrances to these enclosures into gateways of imposing size and appearances. Also the increase in rituals and the powers ascribed to the deities was also responsible for converting these structures into the palaces of Gods and Goddesses along with the homes of the attending, worshipping and caretaking Brahmins.
The enlargement of the southern temple proceeded on following lines: The shrine and its porch formed the innermost court with a small gopuram (gateway) at the entrance. In course of time, this covered court itself was contained into another court with two entrance gopurams. It was further enclosed by rectangular enclosures bounded by high walls. A wide open courtyard known as Parakarm was left all around. Within this Parakarm were added other structures, chiefly pillared halls and subsidiary shrines. There were also buildings of semi-religious characters like granaries and room for storing ceremonial supplies. This enclosure was also entered through two gopurams. After a time, a still higher enclosing wall added, leaving another larger Parakaram around. Within this last enclosure, two important structures were constructed, the hall of Thousand Pillars and a Tank for ceremonial bathing. Four gopurams led into this prakaram and each set was larger than the ones of the previous parakaram.
Almost invariably the two lower stories of the gopuram are vertical and are built of solid stones. It provided solid foundation for the super structure of lighter materials such as brick and plaster. The tower section is pyramidal in shape and is composed of a series of diminishing tiers in their ascend. The average angle of slope from the vertical is 25 degrees and width at the top is approximately half of its base.
It is possible to divide these gopurams into two classes, one type with straight, firm and rigid sloping sides and another with concave and curved gopurams.
The entire surface of these gopurams was covered with a bewildering array of life size figures of Hindu mythology, as an example some of these gopurams have as many as thousand carved figures.
8.Vesara Architectural style
This style was adopted in the region that today lies in the modern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. True to their geographical position as buffer between north and south, this architectural style has mix of both the Nagara and Dravidian temple styles. These temples have Shikhars resembling Nagara temples and the rich carving style is apparently the influence of Dravidian temple architecture style. Vesara is also known as Hoysala architectural style and was promoted by Hoysala Kings who ruled over Mysore area from AD 1050 to AD 1300.
The exterior of these temples have flawless riot of intricate carvings. The fine chiseling effect on the walls of these temples appears like an enlarged production of sandalwood work which is still a specialty of Karnataka’s craftsman. The characteristic of Hoysala temples is their pillars. Apparently, several teams of craftsmen were handed over these pillars and they tried to give their best on these pillars producing totally different diversity of work. The pride at stake could be understood by the story of famous Hoysala sculptor Jakkannachari who cut off his right hand when his son pointed out a minor flaw in his work in the temple of Belur.
The temples of Somnathpur, Belur and Halebid belong to this architecture style.
I would like to end my marathon post on temple architectures now. There are plenty of things to read, learn and to write about the temple architecture, so I would not be surprised if profound readers find it incomplete and hurriedly written. I, on my part, consider this as an attempt to initiate the interested readers into the understanding of temple architectures. We will definitely build much-much over it.
The last line of my article is dedicated to the insurmountable spirit of temple architects and their quest of constructing flawless structures.
In the elder days of Art.
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part,
For the Gods see everywhere.